This is a blog about the native conifers of the Pacific Northwest. It is a companion to the Northwest Conifers site. The blog will focus on timely and interesting details about our conifers, their connections to the rest of the environment, and our connection to them.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Larch

Western Larch by Highway 35
We usually think of conifers as evergreen trees, and most conifers are evergreen. However, some conifer species are notable exceptions. They are deciduous. That is, they drop their needles in the fall and grow a new crop each spring. Most of these deciduous conifers are larches. Ten species of larch grow in the Northern Hemisphere, three are native to North America, and two grow in the Pacific Northwest. Western Larch (scientific name, Larix occidentalis) is the most common larch in the Northwest and the only larch native to Oregon. You may not notice the larches on your summer hikes in the Cascade Mountains, but in November, when the needles turn golden-yellow, they stand out like trees on fire. You can see them along Oregon Highway 35 north of Mount Hood Meadows.

Now, you may wonder, why do larches drop their needles in the fall? Other conifers growing nearby seem to survive the winter cold just fine with their needles intact. These conifers have adapted to the cold by moving water out of the cells in the needles, leaving a concentrate that acts like antifreeze, or by purifying the water in the cells so ice crystals can’t form even at temperatures well below freezing. The larches have adapted a completely different strategy. They just drop their needles in the fall and grow new ones in the spring. This enables larches to survive some of the coldest temperatures of any of the conifers, growing high in the mountains and in the northern latitudes of North America and Siberia.

Western larch
It takes a lot of energy to grow new needles every year. However, since the needles only have to last one season, they don’t need to be strong and durable. So less energy is needed to grow them. As a result, you will notice that larch needles are much more delicate than those of evergreen conifers. The same is true of the leaves on trees. Note how the evergreen leaves are thick and stiff compared to the delicate leaves on deciduous trees.

Western larch needles
Larches are easy to identify. The needles grow in bundles like a pine with about 25 needles in each bundle. In the Cascades, Western Larch grows mostly on the east side of the Cascade summit at elevations up to 6000 feet. It also grows in the mountains of northeastern Oregon and Washington, and in northern Idaho and western Montana.

Alpine larch (Larix lyallii) grows at elevations higher than Western Larch, near the timberline in the North Cascades in Washington. It also grows in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana, and Canada. 

Western larch is an important timber tree. The wood is nearly as strong as Douglas fir and is used for framing and finishing. Western larch is also a popular firewood in the Northwest. It is often called “tamarack” by wood cutters, a common name for the other North American larch (Larix laricna), which grows in the northeast United States, across Canada, and in central Alaska.

Japanese larch at Hoyt Arboretum
November is the time of the year to look for larches, when they display their fall colors. To see the larches at Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, start at the Visitor Center and walk west on the Fir Trail.

See Also
Fall Conifer Colors
How Do Conifers Survive the Cold?
Western Larch at Northwest Conifers

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Elusive Fir Cone Mystery

Douglas fir cone
Did you ever wonder why you don’t find fir cones on the ground? Well, cones typically cover the ground under Douglas fir trees. But Douglas firs are not in the Abies genus, the genus of the true firs. Like many conifers, Douglas fir cones open in late summer or fall and commit their small, winged seeds to the wind. The seeds descend like little helicopters, where most of them become tasty morsels for chipmunks, juncos and other small birds. Some time later, the cones drop from the trees to the ground. This is why the ground under mature Douglas firs is usually littered with cones. 

Cone near the top of a noble fir

Unlike the Douglas fir, you will rarely see a cone under a noble fir. In fact, if you see any cones under a noble fir, they are likely cones from a nearby Douglas fir. If you look carefully at the top of a noble fir, you may see cones up there. But the cones don’t stay there forever. So what happens to all the noble fir cones?

Noble fir scale and long bract
Noble firs, like all the true firs, engage in extreme seed distribution. The cones don’t just open and distribute the seeds. They completely fall apart and let everything fall to the ground, seeds, scales and bracts, leaving only a narrow spike of the cone core on the tree. The winged seeds generally separate themselves from the scales and sail off in the wind. The scales usually fall closer to the tree. Although you won’t find intact cones on the ground, in late summer and fall, the ground under a noble fir is often covered with these cone scales, with the bracts still attached.

Grand fir scale with broad bract

When you see these cone scales on the ground, you can use them to identify the species of fir. Recently hiking the University Falls Loop Hike in the Coast Range, I noticed some scales had fallen onto the trail. Attached to the scales were long bracts that extended beyond the edge of the scales. These long bracts are unique to noble fir among the native firs of Oregon. All of the other native firs have much shorter bracts, which never extend beyond the edge of the scales. 

Pacific silver fir scale with tapered bract

Later on the University Falls Loop, there were some scales along the trail with bracts that were much shorter than the scales. These fell from a grand fir. Note the shape of the tip of the bract. Each species has its unique shape. Grand fir has a broad end with a narrow tip. If you hike above 5000 feet in the Cascades, you're likely to see Pacific silver fir and subalpine fir. Pacific silver fir bracts are tapered at the end and come to a point. Subalpine fir bracts are rounded with a small point at the end.

Subalpine fir scale with rounded bract

So, if you are out hiking in the fall, just look down. You may see the cone scales all over the forest floor. Then you will know what happened to the fir cones. Not only that, but you will be able to identify each of the firs by the distinctive bracts of each species. 

Occasionally, you will find a fir cone, or even several fir cones on the ground. If you do, you should step away from the tree. It’s likely that a Douglas squirrel is cutting them loose and letting them fall to the ground. Douglas squirrels have no time for chasing after loose seeds. They will cut a cone loose and then strip the scales and eat the seeds, or store the cone in a cache to eat later. A favorite of the Douglas squirrel is the seeds of the Douglas fir. They can strip the scales from a cone and eat the seeds in about five minutes, leaving only what I call a “cone cob.” If you see Douglas fir scales on the ground, you can be sure Douglas squirrels have been busy at that location. You can often see piles of these scales and the left-over cone cobs below the squirrel’s favorite spot for eating lunch.

Douglas fir scales and cone cobs

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Andrews Experimental Forest

I had the great opportunity to visit the Andrews Experimental Forest east of Eugene, Oregon this summer. The HJ Andrews Experimental Forest is a 16,000-acre ecological research site, supported by Oregon State University and the US Forest Service.

The Andrews Forest was established in 1948. In the 1950’s, the research focused on increasing the “efficiency of forest operations.” At that time, forestry was viewed as a form of farming. Just as the corn farmer grows crop after crop of corn, the forester grows crop after crop of trees. The question was: How do we use science to maximize the tree harvest? Of course, natural forests in the Pacific Northwest didn’t grow as crops. The trees here grew to be large and old. But what about these old-growth forests? They were considered very inefficient, in fact worse than inefficient, producing no new logs. First they needed to be cut down. Then efficient tree farming could begin. The process was:  Plant new trees, usually Douglas fir, grow them for 60 years, harvest them by clear cutting, repeat. This was the new “scientific” approach to forestry, which at least replaced the devastating cut and run forestry that removed forests all across the country, starting at the East Coast. Still, this new approach to forestry was focused on maximizing timber production.

Lookout Creek in the Andrews Forest
However, the researchers at the Andrews Forest also began to study the workings of a naturally growing forest. It is as if they had just discovered something that Henry David Thoreau had written 100 years earlier: “Would it not be well to consult with Nature in the Outset? For she is the most extensive and experienced planter of us all” (from “The Succession of Forest Trees.”) It is this focus on how a natural forest grows and how the various organisms interact, grow, and change over time that has occupied the scientists at the Andrews Forest. This new research has led to some amazing discoveries and a new understanding of how to manage a forest ecosystem.

Ancient Douglas firs in the Andrews Forest
Jon Luoma’s wonderful book, The Hidden Forest, tells the story of the research at the Andrews Forest. Some of the most interesting research reveals how different species in the forest work together for mutual benefit, an arrangement called symbiosis. Here are some fascinating examples.

All plants need nitrogen to thrive. A young forest gets nitrogen from nitrogen fixing shrubs. Red alder trees, which often are the first trees to grow in a new forest also have nitrogen fixing bacteria in their roots. However, as a forest matures, conifers grow to shade out the shrubs and even the alders. By the time the forest becomes mature, all these nitrogen fixers are gone. So, where does a mature forest get the nitrogen it needs? This mystified scientists for a long time. They didn’t find the answer until a team at the Andrews Forest used ropes to climb into the top of a Douglas fir tree. What they found 200 feet above the ground was an abundance of lichen growing on the branches. The lichen they found is lettuce lichen (Lobaria oregana). Testing showed that this lichen was full of nitrogen. Much of the lichen eventually falls to the forest floor allowing the nitrogen to enrich the soil. Without the lichen, an old-growth forest probably could not exist. In return, the lichen doesn’t ask for much, just a place to live up in the abundant sunlight of the forest canopy.

Lichens themselves are an interesting study in symbiosis. A lichen is not a single organism. It is a composite organism made of algae and fungi living in a symbiotic relationship. The algae perform photosynthesis and supply energy to the lichen. Threads of fungi provide structure keeping it all together, gather water and nutrients, and attach to the tree where the lichen grows.

Another fascinating discovery was finding fungi living inside apparently healthy conifer needles. Why didn’t the fungi harm the needles, and just what were the fungi doing there? Well, trees have a problem with defoliating insects. Unlike short-lived plants, trees live too long to react to evolving short-lived insects. It turns out that these fungi have a symbiotic relationship with the needles. In exchange for the energy supplied by the needles, the fungi protect the needles by creating compounds that poison the defoliators. If the defoliators develop a resistance to the poison, the short-lived fungi can quickly change to create new, effective poisons. It’s a constant evolutionary race, not unlike the race between new strains of disease and the pharmaceutical companies that must create new forms of antibiotics, although the fungi don’t make billions of dollars for their services.

Over 100 years ago, scientists discovered another symbiotic relationship 200 feet below in the root systems of the trees. While researching how to grow truffles, a scientist discovered that threadlike tendrils attached to the truffles were connected to the roots of trees and other plants. These are the fungi that produce the truffles. He also discovered that seedlings with these fungal connections grew much faster. Now we know that these fungi get nourishment from the tree. In return, the fungi collect water and minerals that feed the root system of the tree.

Douglas squirrel munching on a fungus
In the 1970’s scientists at the Andrews Forest discovered more remarkable connections in the ecology of the forest, not just between the fungi and trees, but also between the fungi and small mammals. Voles, chipmunks, squirrels, and mice, love truffles and other fungi. For some, it is an important part of their diet. It’s no surprise that squirrel poop is chocked full of the reproductive spores from the fungi, which, of course, these small mammals distribute all over the forest making their own little contributions to the forest ecosystem. In their turn, the trees provide habitat for the mammals both when the trees are alive and especially when they’re rotting on the ground. Voles, for example, depend on these rotting logs. The rotting logs, then, become an essential part of the forest ecosystem, not just providing living quarters for the voles, but food for insects and other organisms as well. Eventually, nutrients in the log are recycled back into the soil. These factors have led researchers at the Andrews Forest to re-assess the old forest practices of clear-cutting and removing the dead material from the forest floor.

These and other discoveries at the Andrews Forest led to a new approach to forest management based on their studies of naturally growing forests. If Thoreau were alive today, he would say, “Well, it only took you 100 years to figure that out.”
Andrews rain gauge with baffles to increase accuracy 
My rain gauge
The two-day workshop I attended at the Andrews Forest was hosted by the Oregon Season Tracker Program, a joint project of the OSU Extension program and the Andrews Forest. The Oregon Season Tracker Program enlists volunteer citizen scientists to collect and record precipitation and plant phenology data. Daily precipitation is easy to record using a standard rain gauge like the one above. We report the precipitation to the CoCoRaHS Web site.

Plant phenology observations enable us to track the changes in plants as they respond to seasonal changes and variations in weather and, in particular, climate change. We report our phenology observations on the Nature's Notebook site.

 More Andrews Forest photos
Stream monitoring station

Western hemlocks

Temperature monitor

Experimental rain gauges


More info

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Focus on Spruce

Sitka spruce at the
Cape Perpetua

About 30 species of spruce grow across the northern hemisphere, most notably in the cold arctic regions. Fossils of spruce date to 65 million years ago. The spruces are most closely related to the pines, but you would never guess this from looking at any spruce. Judging from the needles and cones, you would think that they’re not even in the same family. Three species of spruce are native to the Pacific Northwest: Sitka spruce, Engelmann spruce, and Brewer spruce. The most ancient species were two of our natives: Brewer spruce and Sitka spruce. Also, spruces originated in the Northwest. Millions of years before humans discovered the Bering Land Bridge, spruces made a slow migration across to reach Asia and Europe. It may seem odd to think of trees migrating. They generally stay rooted in one spot. Yet even though the trees themselves don’t travel, their winged seeds do. So each generation can sprout a few hundred feet beyond the previous generation. It’s easy to see that trees would be able to migrate thousands of miles in millions of years.

Spruces can grow to 200 feet tall, given a chance. Sitka spruce is the largest species of spruce. The largest Sitka spruce in Oregon is located at Cape Meres. The largest Sitka spruces in the world are in Washington state, the Lake Quinault Spruce, growing on the south shore of Lake Quinault, and the Queets Spruce, growing near the Queets River in Olympic National Park.
Spruce needles and cones

Twig with pegs where needles attached
The Spruces are easy to identify. They have some distinguished and distinguishing features. First, consider the needles: They look like Douglas fir needles, radiating all around the twig, but they are pointed and sharp. Unlike Douglas fir and the true firs, each spruce needle grows on a small peg. In fact, these pegs are unique in the pine family, and remain even after a twig loses its needles. The cones have thin scales, with their bracts hidden safely inside on mature cones, again unlike Douglas fir, which has conspicuous three-pointed bracts poking out from each scale. The bark is gray and usually breaks into scales on large trees.

Spruce gall
Spruce trees often develop galls. People often confuse these galls with cones, especially when there are no cones present on the tree. These galls are caused by the gall adelgid, a tiny insect that loves to eat the tender spruce needles after they burst from buds in the spring. The tree reacts by producing a gall on the twig tip.

The scientific name for spruce is Picea, which is derived from the Latin for "pitch."

Spruces dominate vast northern regions of the northern hemisphere including Alaska, Canada, and Russia. The only other conifers that grow this far north are the larches. Farther south in North America and Asia, spruces are confined to higher elevations in the mountains, extending into Mexico in North America and to the Himalayas in Asia. Sitka spruce is one exception to this attraction to cold extremes. It clings to the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska, thriving where other trees avoid windswept shorelines continuously peppered with salty ocean spray.

Engelmann spruce bark
Spruce wood is used for construction and making paper. The original Christmas tree was a Norway spruce. The most celebrated use of spruce is in the making of fine string instruments. It’s also used for piano sound boards. You might think of Howard Hughes’ famous Spruce Goose airplane as another use of spruce wood. The huge airplane was made of wood, but the wood used in the Spruce Goose was birch. No wonder Howard Hughes never liked that name. It’s also been called the Flying Lumberyard, but I doubt that he would have liked that any better. The Spruce Goose is now on display at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

Conifers of the World, James Eckenwalder

Friday, July 20, 2018

Focus on Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa pine may not be the tallest tree in the Pacific Northwest, but it is arguably the most picturesque and stately, owing to its colorful, puzzle piece bark and habit of growing in grassy, open parklands where each tree stands out as an individual. It is the second most distributed pine in western North America after lodgepole pine. But ponderosa pine is the iconic tree of the western United States, featured in nearly every western movie and more than a few television series, including Bonanza, set at a ranch called The Ponderosa.  The scientific species name of ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa, is easy to remember, because it matches the common name. 

Ponderosa pine is a large tree, growing to 200 feet (60 meters). It is most easily recognized by its distinctive bark, with its long, flat, orange or yellow plates separated by dark furrows. The flaking surface of the plates looks like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The bark is more colorful on older trees, most notably on large trees growing east of the Cascades. The needles are no less distinctive. They are longer than any other pine native to the Northwest, up to 12 inches long. And ponderosa pine is the only pine in the Pacific Northwest outside of southwest Oregon that has 3 needles per bundle. Jeffrey pine and knobcone pine are native to southwest Oregon and have 3 needles per bundle. Jeffrey pine is similar to ponderosa pine, but the Jeffrey cones are twice the size of ponderosa cones. Knobcone pine needles are much shorter, and the small cones remain closed on the tree. 

The ponderosa cones are egg-shaped when open and 3 to 6 inches long with a sharp prickle on each scale. If you pick up one of the cones, you may feel just how prickly they are. When mature, ponderosa cones open, disperse their seeds, and soon fall to the ground, where hapless hikers pick them up and quickly drop them again.

Where it grows 

Ponderosa pine is common throughout much of the western US. It is the most common conifer in the Northwest east of the Cascades, growing at elevations up to 5000 feet (1500 meters). Although it thrives in dry, mountainous regions, it is surprisingly native to the wet habitat of the Willamette Valley. Even more surprising, these natives are better adapted to wet areas than the Douglas firs that grow in the valley. Most of the ponderosa pines growing in the Willamette Valley probably came from seeds grown east of the Cascades, but there are a few locations where you can find some trees that are native to the Willamette Valley, for example, at the Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Cooper Mountain Nature Park and the Tualatin River Wildlife Refuge have plantings of young Willamette Valley natives.


Two subspecies grow in the Pacific Northwest:* 

  • Subspecies ponderosa grows east of the Cascade crest and throughout the mountains of eastern Oregon and Washington. It also grows in the mountains of Idaho. 
  • Subspecies benthamiana grows in the Willamette Valley, a few locations in western Washington, and the coastal mountains of southwest Oregon. It also grows in the mountains of California, especially the Sierra Nevada. 
  • If you travel farther east, you will encounter subspecies scopulorum, which grows throughout much of the Rocky Mountains. Ponderosa pine is the state tree of Montana.

Subspecies ponderosa, benthamiana, scopulorum**

It is difficult to identify these subspecies based on the characteristics of the trees. The needles of subspecies benthamiana are often longer those of the other subspecies, up to 12 inches long (30 cm). The needles of subspecies ponderosa are up to 10 inches long (25 cm). The needles of subspecies scopulorum are even shorter, no longer than 7 inches (17 cm).


Many conifer species have a special relationship with fire. Ponderosa pine has an unusually friendly relationship with fire. Did you ever wonder why you see open ponderosa forests with just grasses and small forbs growing under the trees? Why are there no limbs on the ground or other conifers growing in the understory like you would see in a Douglas fir forest? The answer is frequent fires. These open woods depend on frequent fires. The thick bark on the ponderosa pines isn’t harmed by these fires. Other plants adapted to these fires can regenerate after the fires. But the fires prevent competing conifers like grand fir from growing. The small firs and any shrubs are burned in the fire along with any other combustible debris left on the ground. Unfortunately, in the past century these fires had been aggressively suppressed throughout the west. This has allowed the ponderosa forests to become crowded with combustible fuels in the understory. When there is a fire, it becomes a hot wildfire that leaps to the canopy, killing the ponderosa pines. It also burns hotter on the ground, killing other plants that normally survive the frequent, low-intensity fires. 

Recently, forest managers have attempted to restore the fire regime in these forests, by allowing fires to burn when possible, and by setting smaller, controlled fires. The controlled fires remove the excess fuel from the forest, allow the forest to recover, and help prevent hot-burning wildfires. People often object to the smoke caused by controlled fires, but wildfires produce about 10 times the amount of smoke per acre compared to controlled fires. These fires can be set at times when weather conditions are conducive to good smoke dispersal and when the winds blow the smoke away from populated areas.

Pollen cones


Ponderosa pine lumber is widely used in home construction, window and door frames, moldings, and furniture. It is often sold as yellow pine. Squirrels, chipmunks and many kinds of birds eat the seeds. Some cache the seeds, which facilitates the propagation of the pines. Clark’s nutcrackers are usually associated with whitebark pine, but they will settle for ponderosa pine seeds, often transporting them great distances and storing them in caches in the ground. The seeds they don’t eat give the ponderosas a chance to start a ponderosa forest in a new location.

Lewis and Clark encountered this pine in 1805 and were impressed by its long needles. They also made canoes from ponderosa pine and floated them down the Columbia River. In 1826, David Douglas found ponderosa pines growing near Spokane and named them for their heavy (ponderous) wood. Other common names include yellow pine, western yellow pine, and blackjack pine.

John Muir on ponderosa pine
I have often feasted on the beauty of these noble trees when they were towering in all their winter grandeur, laden with snow--one mass of bloom; in summer, too, when the brown, staminate clusters hang thick among the shimmering needles, and the big purple burrs are ripening in the mellow light; but it is during cloudless wind-storms that these colossal pines are most impressively beautiful. Then they bow like willows, their leaves streaming forward all in one direction, and, when the sun shines upon them at the required angle, entire groves glow as if every leaf were burnished silver. -- John Muir, Yosemite, Ch. 6

*The Gymnosperm Database lists these as subspecies. Oregon Flora Project lists them as varieties.

**USGS distribution map. Subspecies distribution based on information from

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Focus on Lodgepole Pine

Lodgepole pine has adapted to several very different habitats in the Pacific Northwest. It grows along the Pacific Coast, where it is often called “shore pine.” But it also grows in the mountains, occasionally right up to the timber line. This split in its range may be explained by the fact that it does not compete well with most other conifers. So it is often limited to locations where other conifers cannot grow, in one case along the coast where the trees are buffeted by wind and salt spray, and in the other, sites with poor soils or frequent severe fires. The conditions where it grows also explain its different growth forms. Growing in dense stands subject to frequent fires, it grows straight and tall to a height of 160 feet (50 meters), in character with its “lodgepole” namesake. Along the coast and on windy mountain ridges, it is usually much shorter and rarely straight. It is short and bent, even shrub-like in form, in character with its scientific name, Pinus contorta.

Recognizing lodgepole pine

  • Needles: Lodgepole pine is easy to identify, because it is the only pine native to the Northwest with 2 needles per bundle.
  • Cones: The egg-shaped cones are 2 inches long and have sharp prickles on the scales.
  • Bark: The bark is dark gray and scaly with small furrows.


Lodgepole pine is often characterized as a fire-dependent species, because the mature cones remain closed until heated by a fire, a feature called serotiny. After a fire, the serotinous cones open and disperse their seeds, generating a new stand of pines. This is what happened in 1988 when spectacular fires burned large stands of lodgepole pine in Yellowstone National Park. In the years after the fires many of the burned areas were alive with new seedlings, the beginnings of a new lodgepole pine forest.

However, this feature of the cones is variable. It varies between the different varieties described below and varies as the tree ages with older trees producing more serotinous cones. It also varies based on the local fire history. Trees growing in areas where there are frequent fires are more likely to produce serotinous cones. This is no surprise. It’s just another example of the adaptability of lodgepole pine. Serotiny is even variable among the cones growing on one tree, enabling its offspring to adapt to changing conditions. Evolution rules! And lodgepole pine is perhaps its most ardent agent of change among the conifers.


As lodgepole pine has adapted to different environments, many of its features have changed, especially the cones. Writers* generally identify three varieties:
  • Shore pine (var. contorta) grows all along the Coast from California to Southeast Alaska. The cones are curved, and they usually open and disperse their seeds when mature. The needles are shorter (less than 2 inches – 6 cm) and thinner than the other varieties (with needles up to 3 inches – 8 cm). After seed dispersal, the cones may remain on the tree for some time.
  • Sierra-Cascade lodgepole pine (var. murrayana) grows in the Cascades of Oregon. It also grows in the Sierra Mountains of California. Its cones are nearly symmetrical, and they nearly always open and disperse their seeds as soon as they mature, dropping the cones soon after.
  • Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine (var. latifolia) grows in the Cascades of Washington and the mountains in the northeast corners of Oregon and Washington. It also grows throughout much of the Rocky Mountains. The cones are curved and variably serotinous, often remaining closed until heated by a fire. The non-serotinous cones can remain on the tree for some time after dispersing its seeds.

Note that the borders between the varieties are not necessarily recognized by the trees. Try as we will to classify all of nature into tidy little boxes with clearly drawn lines, nature doesn’t usually color inside the lines. Lodgepole pines are no exception. They interbreed at the borders between the varieties and adapt to local conditions.  
Shore Pine at Oceanside, Oregon

Native Americans used this pine for teepee poles (lodge poles) wherever the trees were available in the western U.S. Some traveled great distances to find suitable poles in the mountains where they grew. Today lodgepole pine is used to make paper, paneling, plywood and fiberboard, and to build barns and other post-and-beam structures.

Chief Joseph pine in the Winter
Garden at Hoyt Arboretum
Chief Joseph Pine

The Chief Joseph pine is a dwarf variety of lodgepole pine that surprisingly turns golden-yellow in the winter. Doug Will of Sandy, Oregon discovered this amazing golden tree growing in the Wallowa Mountains and named it for the famous leader of the Nez Perce tribe. It looks like a normal lodgepole pine in spring and summer. But in late fall, the needles turn to a bright golden color. You might expect it to shed its needles like a larch, but they remain on the tree all winter and then turn green again in the spring. Its striking color and extraordinary growth habit have made it a popular item at nurseries across the country.

You can see a Chief Joseph pine in its winter color here.


*Chris Earle (, Aljos Farjon, A Handbook of the World’s Conifers, James Eckenwalder, Conifers of the World, Zsolt Debreczy and Istvan Racz, Conifers Around the World. Common names from Eckenwalder and the USFS Silvics Manual 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Focus on Subalpine Fir

As its name suggests, subalpine fir is a high elevation tree that often grows at the timberline. It may not be the tallest of the firs, but it is arguably the most stately. It is easily recognized by its slender, spire-shaped form, a clever adaptation to heavy snowfall. Longer branches would break under the weight of the snow. It is a picturesque accessory to the majestic alpine scenery, where you can see it framing your view of snow-capped mountains. Below the timberline, it can grow to over 150 feet (45 meters).

You can easily identify subalpine fir by the needles, which curve upward and have bands of white stomatal bloom on both sides, two on one side and one on the other. Pacific silver fir and noble fir also grow near the timberline, but Pacific silver fir has stomatal bands only on the lower side of the needles, and noble fir has straight needles with a sharp curve where they attach to the twig. At the timberline, subalpine fir hangs out with mountain hemlock, notable for its drooping top. You are also likely to see whitebark pine nearby, distinguished by its bundles of five needles.

The cones sit upright on branches near the treetop and fall apart at maturity, dispersing both seeds and scales, and leaving a cone core spike on the branch. The cones often ooze a white resin.

Subalpine fir grows in the Cascades, Olympics, and the mountains of northeast Oregon and Washington. It also grows throughout the Rocky Mountains and ranges from Arizona to Alaska. It grows from 4000 feet to the timberline in the Pacific Northwest, to 12,000 feet in Arizona, and down to sea level in Alaska. Although subalpine fir is moderately shade-tolerant, it does not compete well with other Northwest conifers when it is growing in the shade. You often see it in or around the edges of open meadows. 

The seedlings of subalpine fir grow slowly, often growing just an inch in a year. But these trees have a creative alternative way to reproduce at higher elevations. The lower branches of trees can be pressed to the ground by heavy snow and grow roots where they touch the ground. This process, called layering, creates mats of tree branches. Trees will also sprout and grow from these mats, producing islands of subalpine fir trees. 

As the climate warms, subalpine fir will be able to move to higher elevations, especially in wet areas. Warmer temperatures have already enabled the firs to invade some alpine meadows to the consternation of wildflower lovers. However, lower elevation trees may not be able to tolerate the warmer and drier conditions. This may seem like an even trade for the subalpine firs, but it is not. Due to the usually conical shape of Cascade Mountains, the higher elevation area is much less than the area at lower elevations.

While it has few commercial uses, subalpine fir is an important component of the subalpine forest community, providing habitat for animals and protecting watersheds that collect our drinking water. Although not readily available at local Christmas tree lots, it would make a shapely Christmas tree. It’s a long distance to go for a Christmas tree, but you can find subalpine fir in Norway, where it is becoming a popular “exotic” species for Christmas tree production. Locally, you can find cultivars of subalpine fir at nurseries, especially dwarf cultivars. 

The scientific name of subalpine fir is Abies lasiocarpa. The species name, lasiocarpa, means "hairy fruit," a reference to the fuzzy cones. Other common names: alpine fir, white fir, balsam fir, and Rocky Mountain fir. 


See also

The Gymnosperm Database
Christmas trees in Norway
Vegetative Reproduction by Layering
Climate change and subalpine fir:
    Growth response in the Olympic Mountains
    Subalpine fir in meadows
    Predicted range maps of subalpine fir